Sanderson, Major General Lawson (1895-1979)

  • By Duane Colt Denfeld, Ph.D.
  • Posted 2/27/2013
  • Essay 10302
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Marine Corps aviation pioneer Lawson H. M. "Sandy" Sanderson (1895-1979) was born and grew up in Shelton, Washington. He became a Marine Corps pilot at the end of World War I and in the following years was instrumental in the development of dive-bombing, one of the most important innovations in aerial warfare. In the 1920s Sanderson also participated in air races and aerial demonstrations that generated interest in aviation, and helped develop the Marine Corps's football program. During World War II Sanderson reached the rank of brigadier general and commanded aviation units. On September 4, 1945, he accepted the Japanese surrender of Wake Island. The Mason County Airport near his hometown of Shelton was renamed in his honor in August 1966.

Lawson H. M. Sanderson was born on July 22, 1895, in Shelton, Mason County, son of Lewis (1857-1941), a game warden, and Ruby (1861-1956), a homemaker. He attended Shelton High School, excelled in sports, and went on to the University of Montana. There he continued sports excellence, playing on the Montana Grizzlies football and basketball teams. The football squad in 1914 had an exceptional season, with seven wins, one tie, and no losses.

In April 1917 Sanderson graduated from the university and became a United States forester in Missoula. That fall he joined the Marine Corps, and in October the next year he earned his wings as a Marine aviator.

Aerial Bombardment

While serving with the Marine 4th Squadron in Haiti in early 1919, during the United States' 1915-1934 occupation of the Caribbean nation, Sanderson made a significant contribution to the corps's aerial-bombardment techniques. In the U.S. campaign against Haitian Cacos, who were rebelling against the U.S.-organized Gendarmerie d'Haiti in response to the brutality of some Gendarmerie units, Sanderson was disappointed by the poor results of bombing from horizontal flight. He developed the more accurate dive-bombing, experimenting with different glide approaches to deliver ordnance accurately onto Caco positions.

Sanderson found a solution that worked: mount a sight to his Curtis JN-4 "Jenny" aircraft's windshield and attach a makeshift rack holding a canvas bag that contained a bomb. On one mission, using the sight, he flew a steep, 45-degree angle almost to the target. At about 250 feet above it, he dropped his bomb. The bomb hit a Caco stronghold that had pinned down American marines, allowing them to escape. When Sanderson rapidly climbed out of the dive the plane almost disintegrated, but he was able to smooth out the ascent and return to base.

Other pilots then employed his technique, and Marine aviation units were given dive-bomb training. The Marine Corps eventually became the leader in close air-support for ground troops, drawing upon the innovations of Sanderson and other pilots. The first organized Marine Corps dive bombing took place in Nicaragua in 1927, during the Corps's second occupation of that country.

When the Marine Corps later demonstrated the technique at the 1931 National Air Races at Cleveland, Ohio, an interested German observer was World War I fighter ace Major Ernst Udet (1896-1941). Udet would go on to develop the famous Junkers Ju 87 Stuka dive bomber and serve as second in command of the Nazi Luftwaffe until his suicide in 1941.

Flying and Football

In the fall of 1919, Sanderson helped institute varsity football in the Marine Corps while stationed at Quantico Marine Barracks in Virginia. This was the beginning of the "Quantico Marines" football team that would become a national power. Made up of former college players, the team played army, navy, and major university squads. Their popular games drew up to 60,000 fans and national attention. Quantico Marines teams survived until the 1970s, when organized military sports were downgraded.

Lieutenant Sanderson spent the 1920s at Quantico Marine Barracks in aviation squadrons. He also participated in aerial shows that popularized flight. These included the Pulitzer races, aerial competition in speed and flying skills. In 1921, Sanderson was one of four naval aviators to make the then-longest round-trip flight over water and land, flying from Washington, D.C., to Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. Six years later he received the Distinguished Flying Cross for this feat. In 1922, at the Pulitzer race, Sanderson won in the speed category, hitting 244.5 miles per hour. The next year he finished in third place in the air race. As he crossed the finish line he ran out of fuel and had to make a forced landing.

With Sanderson now a national figure, Mason County businessmen and politicians sought and obtained his support in getting an airport for the area. The efforts were successful and in September 1927 he returned to Shelton to participate in a Flying Circus at the new airstrip one mile north of town, which would become the Mason County Airport. Sanderson had just competed in the National Air Derby and Air Races at Spokane. The Flying Circus, a half-day holiday for Mason County, showcased plain and fancy flying.

Mentor and Commander

In 1928 and 1930 First Lieutenant Sanderson served combat tours in Nicaragua. He further contributed to military aerial tactical advances in 1934 and 1935 by teaching at Quantico and at the Army Tactical School at Maxwell Field in Alabama, as a newly promoted captain. In 1935 and 1936 he came out to the Naval Ammunition Depot in Bremerton to work on bomb issues.

Sanderson transferred to the Naval Air Station at San Diego in July 1936, and served there for two years. With a return to Quantico and promotion to major, his duties shifted to administration and the organizing of aviation squadrons. Having mentored many of the aviators who would be leaders in World War II, his influence on Marine Corps aviation was well established. Sanderson went overseas in 1942 and served in the Solomon Islands as an operations officer with the First Marine Air Wing.

Later in the war, Sanderson became an air wing commander and was promoted to brigadier general in 1945. On September 4 of that year, as commander of the Fourth Marine Air Wing, he accepted the Japanese surrender of Wake Island. In 1946, he went to China as an air-wing commander, and that same year his son, Lawson E. Sanderson (b. 1928), entered the Marine Corps and became a pilot.

Sanderson, now a major general, retired in 1951 to San Diego. In recognition of his exemplary service and innovations to air attack, the Marine Corps established the Lawson H. M. Sanderson Award for the Marine Attack Squadron of the Year. Annually, this prestigious award goes to the most outstanding Marine attack squadron.

Sanderson Field

The U.S. Navy acquired the Mason County Airport in 1941, and it became Naval Air Station Shelton, remaining in navy control until 1955. During the navy era the existing runway was improved and a second runway added.

Following the navy's departure the airport was taken over by the Port of Shelton. On August 28, 1966, it was renamed Sanderson Field Industrial Park and Airport. By then retired, Major General Sanderson attended the dedication. Today (2013) one 5,005-foot-long runway is in active use to serve aviation needs and the industrial park. Major General Sanderson and his wife, Louise N. Sanderson (1898-1985), are buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Sources: Robert Sherrod, History of Marine Corps Aviation in World War II (Washington, D.C: Combat Forces Press, 1952); "Mason County Man to Fly at Detroit," The Morning Olympian, September 3, 1922, p. 1; "Mark E. Reed Takes Air Ride Over Shelton," The Seattle Daily Times, August 18, 1927, p. 11; "Shelton to Stage Flying Circus at Its New Airport," The Seattle Daily Times, September 25, 1927, p. 52; "Five Are Awarded Air Service Medal," The Times-Picayune (New Orleans), December 16, 1927, p. 34; "Japs Surrender at Wake Island," The Seattle Times, September 9, 1945, p. 11; "Gen. Sanderson Now Commands Marine Air Wing in Tien Sin," Shelton-Mason County Journal, August 1, 1946, p. 7; "Shelton Airport to Be Renamed," The Seattle Daily Times, August 26, 1966, p. 10.

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